It was back in June that the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced the teams that would participate in their revolutionary global league to be known as the Pro League. Within a month of that announcement India withdrew both its men’s and women’s teams from the competition. They were replaced by Spain in the Men’s Pro League and Belgium in the Women’s.
Hot on the heels of that announcement a workshop was held in Lausanne for all of the participating nations. It was here that many who had signed up to the league but were still concerned as to how the sport was going to finance the league were convinced that all would be fine.
As for the hockey fans around the globe since the announcement of the replacement teams there has been very little information coming out of the FIH. Not the Footy show requested an interview with someone at the FIH who was in a position to answer some of the questions being raised on the 5th of July. We were asked to submit the questions, which we did on the 7th of July. Despite attempts to follow up on this request not until the 13th of September were we advised that there would be no interview. No reason was given for the decision to decline the opportunity to promote a game-changing competition that is now due to start in 14 months.
One would have thought that many of the issues such as the paying of players and allowing them to be dedicated full time athletes would have been addressed by now, and the marketing campaign, which will need to be launched by at least September next year would be along way down the planning process. For such a massive venture there is plenty to be done to ensure that from the very first whistle the tournament is a success.
Sadly the lack of information coming out of Switzerland has led to an abundance of rumours. One such rumour being that the Hockey India League which has been put on hold and will need to be moved To the end of the year so as not to clash with the Pro- League is in negotiations with the European Hockey League to run a reciprocal tournament whereby European clubs will release players to play in India and vice versa. The belief is that these two leagues combined could generate more money to pay their players than the national associations could to have them play in the Pro-League. No one will confirm if this rumour is simply a rumour, or whether there is no smoke without fire.
The payment of players is a big issue. It has become an even bigger one after the CEO of the FIH, Jason McCracken announced in an interview in June that the Pro-League was, “a $150-million project for a federation with annual turnover of SFR10 million [$10.3 million].” Not surprisingly the ears of the players, who in the main earn a pittance for their dedication to the sport, pricked up. However despite Mr McCracken stating that the league will in the main be underwritten by the broadcasters that have come on board, he did not clarify that much of this money is offset against production costs. So the value may well be $150million, but the actual cash component will be far less.
With India withdrawing from the League there are many who worry that there will not be adequate funds to support the competition, especially with the FIH’s former global partner Star Sports having now landed the rights to Indian cricket. Yet many have assured that there is still the money there from television. One question that needs to be addressed is how the FIH are going to grow the Pro-League as a global brand in terms of a television product, when there will be 11 countries, and presumably eleven television networks producing the games and supplying their own commentary teams. That alone is bound to result in the viewers experience differing not only from week to week, but game to game. The key to success in television is having a consistent product that the viewer knows and trusts.
While many question the cost of being a part of the Pro-League and how they will recuperate the costs with one game against each of the other competing nations at home, many in the Southern Hemisphere are concerned about the fact that in the men’s competition they will now have to play six games in Europe over six weekends; as Pakistan are playing in Scotland. In the women’s competition there are only four teams in Europe, but other games will be played in Argentina, the USA, China, New Zealand and Australia. So again there will be a large amount of travel, and as yet no global airline partner to carry the teams has been announced.
The travel is going to be a problem if international players have a job, or are studying for a university degree, as it will mean in the men’s case six weeks leave to play in Europe and another two weeks to play Argentina and New Zealand. As for the women four weeks in Europe will eat into their annual leave and they will still have three more weeks on the road. When most employers only grant their staff four weeks leave a year this is bound to force players to chose between a career or their sport. This is where the EHL/HIL idea also has strength; but most players want to play for their country.
In the backs of the minds of the players in the Southern hemisphere there is the very recent memory of how Super Rugby expanded to incorporate five nations and how after just two seasons they have had to cull three teams. How is hockey going to succeed where rugby failed? Rugby was a competition involving five nations, Hockey’s Pro-League is involving 11 nations, in both men’s and women’s competitions.
One cannot help thinking that a better solution would have been to keep the Pro-League as a Global league, but making it regional. So all of the European nations participate in a home and away competition. This could then dovetail with the EHL. The Asian Teams also play Home and Away, and the two teams that make the finals of the Oceania Cup – usually New Zealand and Australia – participate in Asia. The African nations, and American nations do the same. Certainly these localised competitions would have great appeal in terms of rivalries. Will they fill the stadia as the FIH are hoping? That will come down to marketing of the sport, the teams and the stand out players.
This way every team has an opportunity to grow. No team is left out, and the competition could not be accused of being elitist. The early rounds of the Hockey World League are still planned to go ahead, and if the FIH is making money from the television rights they could underwrite the travel costs for the top world league sides to play in the Pro-League. This would in turn help grow the game in that nation.
So what would happen once you had all of your continental Pro-League Champions? The FIH in its wisdom announced that the Champions Trophy would cease to be contested once the Pro League started, but with this format the Champions Trophy could remain, and qualification could be to make the final of your regional Pro-League.
Jason McCracken was quoted as saying in the interview with Sportal in June that “through consultation with broadcasters and national associations, the concept of the Pro League was launched. It has a narrative, a story. Rather than having a circus of tournaments, broadcasters wanted a window when they know these things are running. That’s what we’re creating. A January-to-June, four-year cycle, with hockey played every weekend.”
He continued “Aside from narrative, our broadcasters wanted more content. With Hockey Pro League, we’ll have 144 games each season, a tenfold increase annually [on international matches played at present]. The market is telling us the product is of value. More hockey, and a narrative.”
A regional Pro League would achieve the same goals and in fact could grow that coverage as the finals in each region start to come closer, as no doubt the networks covering the league in their country would want to take those matches from the other regions.
Of course such variations on the original idea are only being thrown out there because there is little or no information coming out of the FIH. It has not even been revealed how the finals will work, will they be home and away or will the be hosted by one city, like the European Champions League in football? Is it right to have one final when the whole tournament has been held over two legs?
In that same interview in June Mr McCracken stated, “another commercial revenue boost will come from the sale of title sponsorship of the league. The FIH is selling that itself, with preliminary conversations under way with brands.”
He went on to say that “Each national association competing in the league will be able to sell a presenting sponsorship package for their home matches.”
With no announcement of a partner being signed up in the three months since that comment one wonders how close the FIH are to signing up a title sponsor. Some have said that the partner was to be an Indian company but with India withdrawing in July that killed the deal. Then again with a new Global Head of Sales only appointed in September and starting this month, others have claimed that the whole process stalled. The problem here is that the longer the FIH take to find these key sponsors the longer the national associations have to wait to bring on board their own sponsors as obviously they cannot have competing companies as their sponsor. Not the Footy Show was told that the National Associations had been told that they could not approach any Bank, Airline or Insurance company as a major sponsor, which limits the field.
The next fourteen months will pass in a flash and it appears that there is still much to be done to ensure that the Pro-League opens with a bang. Let us hope that more information is forthcoming prior to the World League finals not only to snuff out some of the rumours but also so that everyone can head into the new year with a clearer view of where the game will be in 12 months time.